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Personal values are often written about but, as I recently realized while exploring some of the research, they’re also poorly understood.
What are values, even? As one terrific summary published in Nature Human Behaviour put it, values are “broad, trans-situational, desirable goals that serve as guiding principles in people’s lives.” Basically, they’re the core of who you want to be as a person and reflect what you consider to be important, worthy, and desirable.1
For example, you might value achievement, and see each accomplishment as a further realization of who you wish to become. Or, you may value tradition, and see living true to cultural and religious customs and norms as the way to a good life.
There are some consistencies in what we all value. For example, most of us tend to prioritize caring for others more highly than dominating and controlling others—the latter two “are among the least important values to most people in most societies.”
Benevolence and self-direction (described below) are usually near the top of the values we all share. Each of us also has an internal hierarchy of values, where we rank our values based on those we find extremely important to those that don’t really motivate us at all.
Most curiously, while many long lists of values exist, at a fundamental level there are really only 10 basic human values. Perhaps the most reliable theory of values was developed by Shalom Schwartz. Since the original publication of the list in 2012, his theory has been validated by more than 300 samples across 80 countries.
In the theory, Schwartz defines 10 basic values from which all others stem—think of these as types or categories of values. Here they are, along with a brief definition, pulled directly from the literature review in Nature Human Behaviour:
- Self-direction: Independent thought and action: choosing, creating, and exploring
- Stimulation: Excitement, novelty, and challenge in life
- Hedonism: Pleasure and sensuous gratification for oneself
- Achievement: Personal success through demonstrating competence according to social standards
- Power: Social status and prestige, control or dominance over people and resources
- Security: Safety, harmony and stability of society, relationships, and self
- Conformity: The restraint of actions, inclinations, and impulses that are likely to upset or harm others and violate social expectations or norms
- Tradition: Respect, commitment, and acceptance of the customs and ideas that traditional culture or religion provides
- Benevolence: Preservation and enhancement of the welfare of people with whom one is in frequent personal contact
- Universalism: Understanding, appreciation, tolerance, and protection for the welfare of all people and of nature
Of course, these 10 basic values are just that: basic. There are other values nested under each umbrella. Here are some examples of these sub-values, again drawn directly from the review:
- Self-direction: Freedom, creativity, independence, choosing your own goals, curiosity
- Stimulation: Exciting life, varied life, daring
- Hedonism: Pleasure, enjoying life, self-indulgent
- Achievement: Ambitious, capable, influential, successful
- Power: Social power, wealth, authority
- Security: Social order, national security, family security, reciprocation of favours, cleanliness
- Conformity: Politeness, self-discipline, respect for elders, obedient
- Tradition: Respect for tradition, modest, humble, accepting my portion in life, devout
- Benevolence: Loyal, responsible, honest, helpful, forgiving
- Universalism: Equality, unity with nature, wisdom, world of peace, world of beauty, social justice, broad-minded, protecting the environment
Here’s where things get even more interesting. As you might have noticed, certain values oppose one another—like self-direction and conformity, or power and universalism. It’s even possible to arrange these values into a pie chart of sorts, where values opposite one another are at conflict, and those adjacent to one another are complementary:
The values outlined in Schwartz’s theory can be found in children as young as five, and research has found that what we value stays surprisingly consistent over time.
As far as understanding your own values, knowing the 10 basic values from which all others stem is a great place to start. It’s worth reflecting on which values from Schwartz’s list you care most about. Doing so can help you connect with yourself on a deeper level.